Our weekly series highlights innovation and draws inspiration from sport around the world as it emerges post-pandemic.
Our hope is that we will provide a means by which Sport for Business members will stay up to date with the latest developments in health, broadcast and fan engagement. Times of great change are also times of the greatest opportunity so let’s see what’s going on.
The most important innovations cropping up in the world of sport are those that assist our athletes, staff and fans to return to action in as safe a manner as possible.
Lancashire Cricket Club and Emirate Old Trafford have launched a campaign designed to share experiences of best practice in operating events post-lockdown.
The Safe in One Place initiative will publicly release their precise steps taken to return to competitive action, sharing the knowledge they have gained from creating a bio-secure environment that hosted 300 people for recent Test cricket. The information will be disseminated through behind-the-scenes footage, case studies, infographics and videos.
This is a prime example of the value that can be extrapolated from within the network of our industry. In this instance, Lancashire Cricket Club are doing their bit to ensure sporting events across the board can return in as safe an environment as possible.
Although often competitors on the pitch, it is vital that as an industry we work as a collective to ensure the sports we love can return in an entirely safe setting; this is in everybody’s interest. Those who step up to the plate over the coming months will not be forgotten.
While we wait to attend sporting events in person once again, we rely on the broadcasters, clubs and independent media to help us feel closer to the action than ever before. This will be a particularly interesting space to monitor over the coming months, as COVID-19 has forced content providers to realign their focus, priorities and delivery mechanisms.
LIVE LOOK INS
The National Hockey League (NHL) are working with Twitter to reach more fans than ever before while the playoffs take place behind closed doors.
Twice a week, supporters will have the opportunity to receive “live video look-ins” on the platform – with the game being broadcast for free for a defined period of time – in an effort to reach those who traditionally do not subscribe to the league’s broadcast partners.
Fans will get the opportunity to vote for the games they want to see on the look-ins each week, with the NHL emphasising the importance they place on fan interaction.
Given the fact that there is suddenly an abundance of sport available to be streamed, it would be beneficial for rights-holders to consider granting limited access for free. This could be an opportunity to capture the attention of a new generation of fans.
BACK GARDEN BOXING
There is a pattern emerging: combat sports are making use of current restrictions to take their events to innovative and outlandish new spaces.
Last week we had Mexican professional wrestling taking place in the car park; now we have Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing relocating to their back garden.
With a myriad of live sport flooding back onto our televisions in recent weeks, the boxing promoters are hoping to create an environment that will intrigue viewers and encourage them to tune in ahead of other live events.
For better or for worse, the back garden of their Brentwood headquarters is likely to attract interest from the masses, as it is in stark contrast to the state-of-the-art arenas we have become accustomed to.
Linking in with the NHL’s live look-ins, this new era of sports broadcasting is not just about being accessible to fans; it is also crucial to be unique, separate your event from the pack, and provide people with a reason to explore your product.
Sport is having to adapt like never before, with a specific emphasis on managing fan relationships during this turbulent period. To maintain supporter engagement and satisfaction throughout the COVID-19 crisis, sporting organisations will need to dramatically adjust strategies in areas such as ticketing, digital and non match day events.
OUTSIDE THE DIAMOND THINKING
There also appears to be something brewing within Major League Baseball (MLB) and Minor League Baseball (MiLB), as teams have identified an inventive use for their stadiums while they await a return to play.
Several weeks ago, we reported on the Pensacola Blue Wahoos putting their facilities on Airbnb in a canny move. Since then, their peers have been taking equally creative action to stay engaged with their local communities, via the means of another sport: golf.
The San Diego Padres, the Portland Sea Dogs and the Indianapolis Indians have all turned their grounds into makeshift “golf experiences”, converting their playing areas into nine-hole courses.
Pricing a round at $30-$40 per person, the initial spots made available sold out almost instantly. Across the board, the golf initiatives have enjoyed success, and team representatives have confirmed that they are prolonging the scheme, with a return to MiLB specifically still not in sight.
The Indians are taking a two-birds-one-stone approach, as they are inviting fans who have purchased tickets for postponed games to roll over some of their ticket credit to enjoy a game of golf instead.
Although competitive sport has gradually started to return in Ireland, it will take a long time to recover from the financial hit of COVID-19. With most clubs’ pitch space lying vacant more often than not, it could be time to start viewing it as a revenue-generating asset, something that can make a tangible contribution to the recovery process.
STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS FROM A DISTANCE
Unlike MLB, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have managed a return to action. Where they are really being stung stems from the fact that games will be taking place behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.
Unlike their male counterparts, who enjoy far greater commercial revenues, the WNBA are considerably more dependent on matchday income.
Emanating from this financial quandary has been an increased emphasis on fan engagement and encouraging supporters to remain loyal over the coming months. Phoenix Mercury, for example, have taken considerable action in this area.
They have rolled out measures such as ensuring a member of staff personally phones every season ticket holder, hosting virtual Q&A sessions with their coach and general manager for members, and streaming the announcement of a new signing to an exclusive group of fans.
In a similar attempt to make their fans feel appreciated, fellow WNBA team, the Connecticut Sun, are granting enhanced access to their season-ticket holders this year with their “Best Seat in the House” package.
The scheme includes complimentary limited-edition merchandise, but perhaps the biggest draw is the player autographs that fans will receive in the post. Normally, every matchday at least two of their athletes will commit to signing material for fans; this ensures that the tradition can continue and supporters can have that physical connection with the team, even when they’re at home.
Partnerships have become fundamental to the sustainability and growth of the sporting ecosystem, having evolved from the tired concept of sponsorship being a one-way transactional relationship. This has never been more true than at this present moment, as stakeholders from across the industry must work together to overcome the hurdles of COVID-19.
MLB team the Los Angeles Dodgers have built on an existing partnership with Postmates, a food delivery company, to physically bring the matchday experience to fans while they watch from home.
The ‘Home Plates’ scheme will enable supporters to order their favourite foods from the stadium concourse, such as hot dogs, pizzas and desserts, and get them delivered straight to their door. A novel idea but also, perhaps, one that will receive significant interest. If the experiences of this author are anything to go by, the customary matchday burger and a pint will have been sorely missed by many over recent months.
Once again, this initiative pays testament to exploring how both parties can get the most out of a partnership outside of conventional norms during this complex and trying period.
Beyond the Lines is a weekly feature brought to us by our new columnist, Vito Moloney Burke. Vito is a graduate in Business Studies from DCU and was 2018/19 Students’ Union President. He recently completed an internship with Liverpool Football Club’s Strategy team, and is currently undertaking the MSc in Sport Management at University College Dublin.